Organic Grower’s School has been a grassroots, community organization for over 20 years. We recently ran an event which was financially sponsored by both White Wave Foods (Horizon Organics & Silk) and Nature’s Path, two large international corporations.

And we got some feedback.

How could OGS partner with such large-scale agricultural organizations? We’ve heard bad things about Horizon. Isn’t this selling out?

Well the practical reason is, well, practical. The GMO OMG film screening event was costing us $1500, and we wanted to get costs covered by sponsorships. We weren’t sure how many people would come out to the event, and at the very least, we wanted to break even. After two months of knocking on the doors of potential donors all around Western NC, we got nothin’. Just nothin’. All the breweries turned us down (except Lookout who came through at the very end with fabulous donated product. And, by the wgmo-omg-slideay, they are the smallest, by far, brewery in the Asheville area). All the grocers turned us down, even the new fancy one that claims to support organics (although they have supported us in subsequent events). Every one of the businesses we contacted locally turned us down for actual monetary support for our event. In the end, we ended up getting some local media exchanges and in-kind product exchanges. Click here for the list of sponsors for said event.

Asheville businesses, it seems, are saturated by donation requests. Everyone’s looking for a leg up in a community where industry is scarce and events are common. Understandable. Yet, for us, it was a lot of work for very little return. Then Horizon Organics and Nature’s Path offered to send us money, no questions asked. In fact they said “What are your costs? We’ll make sure they’re covered.” No knocking, no begging, no following up. No hours and weeks on the phone. Done. Both organizations have been big-time supporters of the GMO OMG film project. And when the director asked them to support us, they did.

It was a huge relief. We were happy to have the support, as most small non-profits would be. Like most sustainability-oriented organizations, we’re very dedicated to our mission, but often struggle with funding. Yet what about our values? Do these organizations support things that we don’t believe in? A little asking around brought up some concerns:sign

  • Isn’t Horizon Organics owned by the company that fought mandatory labeling of GMO’s in California?
  • Doesn’t Big Ag mean that they treat their farmers badly? Or that the farmers can’t afford to treat their animals well?
  • How could it possibly benefit local if we’re supporting large corporations?

Here are a few things I found out about Horizon from both Jeremy Seifert, the director of GMO OMG and from Horizon’s representative Kelly Shea, who came to Asheville for the screening of the film GMO OMG on earth day:

  • Horizon is no longer owned by Dean Foods–they are on their own now, part of the White Wave consortium. Dean Foods was the one opposing the labeling of GMO’s.
  • White Wave publically supports mandatory labeling of GMO’s.
  • White Wave gave $125,000 into the making of GMO OMG–a top sponsor in the movie’s credits.
  • White Wave continues to pay Jeremy Seifert’s expenses, travel fees, and speaking fees wherever he goes to show the film.
  • White Wave was involved in the founding of the Non-GMO project, which runs the Non-GMO Verified labeling, the largest brand labeling project for non-GMO foods.
  • Their organic products have been certified for 25 years.
  • White Wave Foods has been committed to the national campaign Just Label It!, which collected more than 1.3 million signatures in support of GMO labeling. The president of White Wave, Mike Ferry, was a board member of “Just Label It,” and they gave close to one million dollars to the project.
  • While they were and are a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, who contributed money to the fight against labeling in California, White Wave had an agreement that none of their membership dollars would go to fight against labelling for GMO’s.
  • White Wave is working with more than 700 farms, many of which have fewer than 80 cows.

Additionally, Kelly Shea recommended that I watch this TEDX talk by Myra Goodman, founder of Earthbound Farms, one of the largest organic produce distributors in the country:

The message is an important reminder: organics, even BIG organics, is still small compared to conventional products. It’s helpful to remember that supporting even big organics saves topsoil, minimizes pesticide use, and gets us closer to where we want to be. Yet something in it rings hollow for me. The story is just too clean, too simple, and too pure. A sales-pitch if you will. A sort of don’t-pick-on-us-just-because-we’re-big plea. There have got to be more complex questions, some shadow around the edges, some not-so-pretty truths. How are the workers being treated? Is wealth concentrated at the top while others suffer at low wages? Are social and environmental costs being externalized? How about production methods? Are ‘Big Organic’ standards as high as we might like them to be? Are there hidden elements that aren’t as things seem?

What seems to be true is that corporations exist for profit. Can they also care about things other than profits, like health, land, people, and sustainability? Sure. But their track records are often questionable. Would they be supporting local if it meant a threat to their own business? Likely not. But at the same time, we’re all dependent on them. Western NC produces a very small percentage of the food that’s actually eaten here. So if one is committed to organics, corporate organics is likely part of the weekly grocery bill. And through our efforts, more and more folks will be converting, at least part of their diets, to organic.

Most of us in the world of organic growing prioritize it this way:investing copy

1. Grow it yourself.
2. Find a local grower.
3. Find a grower as close to home as possible or from a store that’s locally owned at the least.
4. Buy corporate organic if you have no other choice.

Realizing how complex this issue really is, I talked with Jeremy Seifert, whose film, GMO OMG, has been supported in large part by the companies that gave us sponsorship for the local screening. With such a large-scale roll out, the film is being shown all over the country, winning all kinds of awards, and influencing way more people than we can imagine. That seems like a good thing. Regarding the support from Big Organics, Jeremy says, “Isn’t it vital at this point in the struggle to recognize allies and move forward one step at a time? They gave [GMO OMG] a huge chunk of money, no strings attached, to help make the film because they believed in it and in awakening people to the reality of the world. I would love CSA’s, home gardens, permaculture, biodynamic gardening, etc., to become the norm. ‘Organic’ in a corporate/gigantic sense is not the answer, but that’s not the battle we’re choosing to fight or the issue this film is tackling and awakening people to.”

Maybe it’s ok to accept support from organizations which are not perfect. Ben & Jerry’s helped push the recent initiative to ban GMO’s in Vermont. They are a huge multi-national corporation, apparently with some level of conscience. Jeremy again, “I think ice cream and sugar, even organic, is terrible for human health and don’t really want to promote it or praise it in a film. But we need to welcome all the help we can get right now.”

More questions continue to arise. What is the higher standard we are adhering to and why? Is it a tactical mistake to deny the support? Would we do better to make a stand against the less than perfect? To what end?

05_jeremy-and-boys-cornfield_webJeremy again, “It’s just not the time or place to start nitpicking and infighting. There IS a time and place, but when most people don’t even know what a GMO is or understand organic for that matter, we need to pull together (at least for a time) and see what can happen when we are unified, even if all the parts are imperfect.”

I find myself grateful for the inclusive attitude, especially when small, local, and organic stand to benefit. And likewise feel grateful for some much needed financial support at a time when local businesses are too tapped out to give. If we can channel funds from the big guys to build the culture we ultimately want, then isn’t that a worthwhile thing? The answer to that is mixed, just like the complexity of the questions.

Let’s keep the conversation going. Would love to hear from you.

Lee Warren

Lee Warren

Lee Warren has been homesteading and farming in cooperative community for more than 20 years. She is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School, which has been offering organic education to Southern Appalachia since 1993. She is the co-founder of Village Terraces CoHousing Community, a collaborative, off-grid neighborhood at Earthaven Ecovillage, and the manager of Imani Farm, a pasture-based cooperative farm. Lee is also an herbalist, writer, teacher, and food activist, with an avid interest in rural wisdom, sustainable economics, and social justice issues.